Upgrading my wife’s laptop computer

So here’s the deal.  My wife Vicki has used an HP Pavilion laptop for the past six years.  The laptop has some issues with it, but she still uses it for everything from genealogy to photograph storage, and occasional netsurfing. The laptop was state-of-the-art in 2003, but now it’s a dinosaur. The hard drive is tiny (30 gigs), the memory is puny (512 MB total), and when I went to use her laptop, the keyboard was almost molten hot – because the battery was defective.

And thus begins a new project. Yeah, I could run out and spend $500-$700 on a new laptop, and then have to spend another $500 on software – or, I could see whether her current laptop can be upgraded to continue to function properly for another few years.

I think it can be upgraded. And I’m going to address all three of the laptop’s problem issues – the memory, the hard drive and the battery.

The first thing I wanted to fix on Vicki’s laptop was its memory.  The machine had two 256mb DDR SDRAM SO-DIMM chips on it (sorry, I know we’re going into computergeekspeak), so I went on HP’s website and discovered that the laptop’s memory can handle a maximum of one gig – or, in computergeekspeak, two 512mb DDR SDRAM SO-DIMM chips.

Great.  I can at least boost the memory to twice its original store-bought power.  That’s a step in the right direction.

So off to find the necessary chips.

I stress “find.”  Because it wasn’t easy.

When it comes to computer memory, you can’t just slap in any old chip and suddenly you’re recreating Flowers for Algernon.  If you go over the recommended maximum computer memory requirement without knowing what you’re doing, you can do some nasty damage to your laptop.

I was, however, able to find the chips, after much detective work.  You need two 512mb DDR SDRAM chips to create the 1gb of memory, and since those chips aren’t manufactured any more, you can’t find them at Best Buy or Radio Shack – instead, you have to go to the local cadre of Capital District computer repair shops.

I first went to Computer Renaissance on New Loudon Road in Latham, where they had one of the chips.  On the way home, I stopped at another place, Computer Answers on Central Avenue in Albany, where the guy on duty sold me another 512mb memory chip.  Total cost for the two chips – approximately $85 with tax.

While Vicki was out visiting with her friends, I stayed home and prepared for the operation.  Not being 100% proficient when monkeying around with computers, I wanted to take every precaution necessary – short of putting on surgical gloves and a mask.

I disconnected all power to the computer and removed its battery, essentially giving it a general anesthetic.

A surgical incision with a Phillips screwdriver, and the laptop’s small baseplate was removed, exposing the computer’s original 256mb memory chips.  Each chip was held in place by two spring-loaded clips.  I carefully slid open the clips.  The memory chips came loose.  I extracted them, harkening back to my days of surgical training where I removed the wrenched ankle, the funny bone and the butterflies in the stomach from ol’ Cavity Sam.

I placed each vintage chip aside.  I unwrapped the 512mb chips from their protective plasticine sheaths, and transplanted them into the patient.  I replaced the backplate.  Plugged the unit in.  Crossed my fingers that the memory I bought was in decent order, that it hadn’t shorted out due to an unknown static shock, and that the computer wasn’t suddenly going to spout out pink smoke and die.

The laptop booted up.  The ubiquitous Windows XP logo glowed.

Then came the welcome screen.  Quickly, in fact.

The installation was a success.  The machine now had a more powerful memory.  Step one of my three-step process for upgrading Vicki’s computer is now complete.  Next up – finding an IDE hard drive and a replacement battery.

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How to cash in your loose change without LOSING your loose change

I’ve got loose change on my bedside nightstand.  I’ve got loose change near my computer monitor.  I’ve poured loose change into two vintage Uncle Sam 3-Coin Register toy banks (actually, one of them is a Maple Leaf 3-Coin Register Bank for my Canadian loose change).

The problem with collecting all this loose change is that you can’t just take a bag of it down to the bank and have them turn it into paper money or deposit it in your bank account.  You end up with dirty looks as the bank teller has to physically count every penny and nickel, while you’ve got customers behind you staring at their watches and giving you dirty looks.  Oh, and don’t EVEN think of bringing a bank your change in wrappers – automatically they assume that if you’ve brought them what looks like a roll of quarters, they just know that you’ve given them 48 pennies sandwiched between two quarters on each end of the roll.  And then they make you write down your bank account number on the coin wrapper – just in case there’s any issue and they want to come back to you and accuse you of swindling.

Some banks do have a customer-available coin-counting machine; I remember having to use a Commerce Bank in Harrisburg, Pa. and discovering that they had such a machine.  They actually had a promotion going on at the time, in that if you could guess how much coinage you had, then dumped it in the machine, and if the total amount calculated was within a dollar of your final total, you received a small gift from the bank (usually a bank-branded mouse paid or jar opener) and the total amount of your coinage in more manageable dollars and larger denominated coins.  They don’t have any of those personal coin-counters in Albany, and as much as I love visiting Harrisburg (their state library has the microfilms for most of Pennsylvania’s newspapers, which is essential for any research projects I need to undertake), I have to find another option for my loose change.

Want to take your change to the grocery store?  You’ve probably seen those CoinStar machines at your local Price Chopper or Hannaford.  You can pour your loose change into the CoinStar machine, and they’ll count it up for you and provide you with a gift certificate, which you can take to the customer service desk and cash in, or use at the register to deduct the gift certificate from your grocery purchase.  Only problem there – you’re actually paying the CoinStar machine 8 9/10 cents per dollar to count your money for you.  So you dump in a dollar, you get 91 cents back.  Definitely not a fan of that.

But there’s one thing those CoinStar machines CAN do to make sure you receive all the money you so diligently collected.

Before you dump your coins into the CoinStar machine, check to see if the CoinStar machine offers the ability to receive your gift certificate as part of an eCertificate.  Several online retailers, including Amazon.com, iTunes and the like, will provide you with a par value certificate that you can use to buy things online.  So if you dump in $24.75 of loose change, you can get $24.75 worth of iTunes downloads or put $24.75 toward the purchase of something on Amazon.com.

Not all grocery store CoinStar machines offer this option, and you need to pour in at least $5.00 to get the eCertificate.  I found this out the hard way.  I thought I had a lot of loose change to dump into the CoinStar machine, and I was actually 15 cents short of $5.00.  I went to a cashier and asked if she could break a $1 bill into four quarters, she did, and I returned to the CoinStar machine to dump one of the quarters into the hopper and get my Amazon.com certificate.

Unfortunately for me, the CoinStar machine decided that it took too long for me to get past that $5.00 barrier, and instead dumped me with a regular change slip instead – after it took out its 39 cents.  So make absolutely sure that if you’re dumping in a whole lot of coins, you need to clear at least $5 if you want an eCertificate.

Covering the Premier Basketball League’s 2009 Entry Draft

BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ

I have two settings on my alarm clock.  If I need to get up at a normal civilized time of the morning – 5:30 a.m., for example – my alarm clock will automatically activate at that moment so the first thing to wake me out of my slumber is 810 AM WGY’s morning newscast.

But on those occasions when I have to fly out of Albany International Airport at some ungodly hour of the morning, I use my second, auxiliary alarm on the cock.  That one starts BUZZING and BEEPING at 3:30 a.m.  Yes, 3:30 a.m.  That gives me enough time to get out of bed, shower, shave, brush my teeth, get dressed, check to make sure my computer laptop and camera bag are packed and ready for my trip, get into the Pontiac 6000, drive to the airport, grimace at having to pay extra bag fees for flying the friendly skies, go through the metal detector at the TSA checkpoint, visit the meditation room at Albany International to pray for a safe flight, get on the plane, listen to the flight attendants point out the safety features of the Airbus 319, recite the 23rd Psalm as the plane lifts off the ground, and then take a nap before touchdown.

But no matter what… I still made it on the plane.  Destination Chicago, for the 2009 Premier Basketball League entry draft.  The draft, which was held at Chicago’s ESPNZone, featured representatives from all nine PBL teams – the six returning franchises from last season (Halifax Rainmen, Kebs de Quebec, Buffalo Stampede, Rochester Razorsharks, Manchester Millrats, Vermont Frost Heaves) as well as three expansion franchises (Maryland GreenHawks, Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry, and Capitanes de Puerto Rico).

One of the great things about Chicago is that it has developed a very sophisticated and integrated rapid transit system.  I was able to get off the plane at O’Hare International Airport, take a short walk, and arrive at the CTA station that would take me downtown.  I also met up at the airport with Adam Dantus, the general manager of the expansion Maryland GreenHawks.  We rode out on the blue line, admiring the scenery and talking about what the new season of the PBL would have.  Would the Razorsharks repeat as champions?  Would the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry make it three stragiht championships? (the Cavs won the final two CBA championship titles)  Could Buffalo improve on a miserable 1-19 season?  Would the playoffs go through Nova Scotia or Quebec City, Barre or Burlington or New Hampshire or Arecibo?

That, and I was admiring the scenery from the window of the CTA train.  There’s some fantastic architecture in Chicago.

One train transfer later, and we were a block away from the ESPNZone.  Upstairs at the ESPNZone, workers were decorating the main staging area, general managers were making last-minute phone calls to prospective first-round and second-round draft picks, and a broadcast crew was setting up to record the draft, for later broadcast through the @sportstv cable / internet sports channel.

For me, it was a chance to meet up with many of the general managers and coaches that I saw over the past two seasons as the PBL’s traveling photographer and statistician.  It was a moment where everybody could relax, talk about what happened last season, how each team would improve on their game, etc.

Then in the afternoon, the draft began.  Each team was allowed three minutes to make their first-round draft pick, and would be permitted one minute to select a draft pick in the second round.  The first-time PBL teams were granted the first three picks, while the remaining six squads selected in order of regular season record.

As each first-round pick was selected and his name and college announced by PBL Chairman of the Board Dr. Sev Hrynwak, the player was escorted from a “green room” by a pair of runway models.  The player put on his new team’s logo hat, and posed for pictures with Dr. Hrynwk and with PBL CEO Thomas Doyle, Esq.

Where did these players come from?  Some of them did come from NCAA Division I schools, but others played on Div-II or Div-III squads.  Others came from the NAIA or from the CIS.  And it’s easy to say, “Hey, you’re coming from a D-III school, what chance do you really have in pro ball?”  To which I say, “guys like Ben Wallace and Devean George and Jamario Moon didn’t play at the Div-1 level, and former Albany Patroons scoring legend Derrick Rowland was a star at Div-III SUNY-Potsdam.”  So there.  And for these PBL first-round draft picks, this was their moment in the sun.  Their chance to walk across a stage and shake a commissioner’s hand.  Their chance to shine.

As each first-round pick was escorted to the podium, handshakes were exchanged, and the player posed for photos with the PBL leadership.  Then, I took a team photo of all the first-round draft picks, and then a group photograph was taken with all the draft picks, as well as the coaches and general managers.  All of which are presented on a slideshow below.  Then, each player was escorted to a small studio, where they were interviewed by the @sportstv broadcasters about their future plans with the PBL.

Among the broadcast interviewers was Bill Hazen, a legend in the Chicago area whose sports career included play-by-play work with the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers; Hazen also called many games for the Gary Steelheads of the old CBA, so he knew how things worked in the minor leagues – and he also knew that these draftees were preparing themselves for a daunting yet physically rewarding upcoming basketball season.

Then, back on a train for me.  This time, instead of going to O’Hare, I had to catch the last flight out of Chicago – which was a Southwest flight out of Midway.  Thankfully, the Chicago subway system has a train that goes directly to Midway Airport.  So it was a few hours at the airport going through 300 photos, tossing out the underexposed and overexposed and jeez-the-guy-blinked-when-he-shouldn’t-have photos, uploading the best 28 photos to my flickr site, and then posting it right here at the bottom of this blog post.

Oh yeah… photos… Here they are!  Enjoy!!

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

The new Hess toy truck is out… and it’s a …

It’s a race car.  Wow!

See this bad boy?  It might almost make me want to give up my Pontiac 6000 if someone could make a life-size production model!  Or at least take this bad boy to Daytona or Loudon or Pocono and take a few laps around the track with it.

About a week ago, I posted a blog piece about the history of Hess toy trucks – their collectable value, the tradition of getting a durable toy (with batteries included) every Christmas season, and how Hess tries to out-do itself every year with new designs and new special gimmicks in each release.

Well, for the company’s 45th Christmas season, they’ve decided to forego a truck and put together a race car.  With an additional, smaller race car inside, ready to pop out at the moment a spring-loaded button is pressed on the larger race car.  Between the two cars, Hess has crammed over 40 different LED lights and several different digital sounds.  And as has been the tradition for the past 45 years, batteries are supplied with both cars (you may need to pick up some C and AA batteries in case the ones supplied wear out).

This isn’t the first time Hess has released toy race cars as part of their collectible truck series.  The 1988 release featured a race car and a truck hauler.  A revamped racer and open-aired hauler was the big prize for 1991, while a smaller race car (and windowed hauler) was the treat in 1992.  In 1998, Hess released another windowed hauler with two different race cars inside – one white with green trim, and one green with white trim.  In 2003, Hess released a double-decker hauler with two F1-style race cars inside.  So the release in 2009 will actually be the first one for Hess that doesn’t involve a truck or utilitarian service vehicle (such as a fire truck or police car) since 1965.  And the toy back then – was a boat, the Hess Voyager oil tanker, which today is now worth about $1,500 in near-mint condition – with box and cardboard inserts and decals intact.  Wow.

And, like every other company out there in the world, Hess has added its toy truck collection to a Facebook page.  Of course, you can also find out more about the history of Hess trucks by visiting the company’s toy-truck-devoted website.

Okay, I realize I’ve been gushing about this new toy, but hey… you tell me you’re not going to forego your Price Chopper AdvantEDGE card fuel-up at Sunoco for one day so that you can get one of these hot rod beauties?

Just leave one for me.

Week 8 of the Elbo Room Trivia Tournament

Unfortunately, your man was at Midway Airport in Chicago by the time General James asked the first question Thursday night at the $2000 Elbo Room trivia tournament, so Street Academy wasn’t going to gain any playoff points that night. However, he was able to get me the final scores, so I’ve added them to the running total here.

So after eight weeks, here are the standings, and remember – only the top eight squads get into the final round.

Elbo Room Trivia Standings – Week 8
Trivia Team Points Totals
1 Mayhem 5 14.3
2 Stern Fans 1 13
3 Big Red Machine 10.3
4 Touched by an Uncle 3 7
T-5 Brown Van Experience 5
T-5 Street Academy 5
T-5 Clay Aiken’s Skid Marks 5
T-8 The Third Wheel 3
T-8 Woo Hoo a Go Go 3
THE CUT LINE
9 Monkey Knife Fights 2.3
10 Dr. Occam’s Razor 2
T-11 The Wrong Guy 1
T-11 Overqualified and Unemployed 1

So I have to make sure I’m there next Thursday, come hell or high water.

How Grandmaster Flash Became my DJ Hero

DJ Hero, the brand new chapter in the Guitar Hero series of rhythm video games, came out last Tuesday.  And it’s a blast.  You get to be the DJ at the club, you get to spin a replica Technics turntable and scratch and cross-fade and mash-up, and it’s a blast.  I really enjoyed playing the demo version at Best Buy over the past few days – and when I switched over from “demo mode” to “training mode” in the game, I received a major but pleasant surprise.

The “trainer” in the game was none other than the turntable legend, Grandmaster Flash.  He explained what to do with the controls of the game, and what doing each different movement (scratching, cross-fading) meant to the concept of turntablism.

What you all don’t realize is that Grandmaster Flash was my personal DJ Hero.

It started way back in the day – 1981, to be totally accurate.  I was a high school student at Street Academy of Albany, where as a high school senior, I was introduced to early rap and hip-hop records.  “Rapper’s Delight?”  Sure.  “Monster Jam” with Spoonie Gee Featuring the Sequence?  Heck yeah.  “The Adventures of Super Rhyme?”  Awesome track.  In other words, my classmates had tracks that came all the way from the pressing plants of the Boogie Down Bronx.  And I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that my first 12-inch record I ever bought – not an album, mind you, but an album-sized record with one track per side – was “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” on Sugarhill Records.

I played that record till the needle wore out.  It was fantastic, it was revolutionary, it was a medley that was created not by re-recording the parts in a studio or by chopping up recording tape and splicing things together – but by using two turntables and a mixer, back-cueing and back-spinning and scratching and a host of other techniques – on two Technics turntables, which I later learned are as important to a turntablist as a Gibson guitar is to a rocker.

True story – when I arrived at Hamilton College as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, my roommate pulled out his phonograph and his collection of music – Squeeze, the B-52’s and the like – and I was not familiar with them.  Of course, when I played Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow on my phonograph, he was just as confused with my musical taste.  Thus continuing a tradition of people who are confused about my eclectic musical tastes.  But I digress.

While at college, and while working at the college radio station WHCL, I and several other on-air students experimented with live remixing on the air, using the two Technics SL1200 MK2 turntables in the college radio station studio and the station’s front panel operating board.  Sometimes the results were spectacular, sometimes the results involved people calling up the station and screaming at us to knock it off.

In 1985, Grandmaster Flash performed at Mohawk Valley Community College, and I interviewed him as part of an on-air radio special.  He was kind enough to autograph his latest 12-inch for me, a track called “Sign of the Times.”

In 1995, I was a struggling writer trying to get my work into a music publication called Goldmine.  Goldmine was a record collector’s biweekly, and they had in-depth interviews with music icons of the past and present. I contacted the editor, and just for the heck of it, I asked if they would be interested in an article on Grandmaster Flash.  After providing the publication with examples of my past work, including a small curriculum vitae, the editor said sure, get it to me in a couple of months and we’ll consider it.

I figured I could use my old 1985 radio interview for source material. But it wasn’t enough for a full-blown Goldmine article. Not in the least. I needed to get back in touch with Grandmaster Flash and interview him about his full career, from his days in the Bronx to the worldwide stage. I wanted to ask him about “The Message” and “Wheels of Steel” and every other track he ever worked on.

After weeks of trying, I finally got in touch with Grandmaster Flash. I asked him if we could set up an interview.

He said no.

No?

No.

This wouldn’t do. I tried again. I tried to convince him that I was not going to ask the same old questions that everybody else had asked. I wanted to ask him about Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins, one of his members of the Furious Five who passed away. I wanted to ask him about the early records like “Superrappin'” and “Wheels of Steel” and all the rest.

I was looking for any sign. Any chance.

Flash responded. “I’m very busy. If you can get down to New York City and to this address downtown (a radio station he was involved with at the time), I’ll give you one hour.”

Success.

“Oh, and it’ll cost $300.”

Uh-oh. Flash was testing me. I knew that if I went back to the editor at Goldmine and asked for $300 to interview Grandmaster Flash, I would never get another interview project with Goldmine ever.

But I also knew that if I didn’t get my foot in the door with this interview, I would never get another chance with Goldmine.

I showed up at the radio station in New York City at the designated time. Flash was there. I gave him the $300, which until earlier that morning was resting comfortably in an Albany-based ATM.

We went into a board room. I turned on my tape recorder. The interview began.

To his credit, Flash answered every question, and gave tremendous insight into his career. He even marveled at the small record collection I had brought with me – my original 12″ of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” my 7″ Australian pressing of “The Message,” and my “nobody has a copy of this, where did you get it” copy of the original Enjoy Records’ copy of “Superrappin,” the first 12-inch featuring Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

The hour finished. He kept on talking. He kept on reminiscing. My tape recorder kept rolling.

And as we left, he took my copy of “Superrappin,” pulled out a ballpoint pen, and autographed the cover. Personalized it. And at that moment, that record went from shelf-dust-gatherer to “I’m going to frame this some day.”

The article ran in Goldmine, you can read it here.

And in 2000, when my record collector’s guide Warman’s American Records was published, I made sure that no matter what, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five would be listed on the front cover.  And if you look on the lower right corner of the book cover, you can see a copy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s LP “The Message,” as clear as day.

And when it comes to my writing career… that was the most beneficial $300 I ever spent.

When the Beatles Played in Albany… their movies, that is…

There’s a store in Crossgates Mall where, if you’re feeling nostalgic about Albany’s past history, you can purchase an old photograph of Albany’s legacy, and hang it on your wall.  Want a picture of downtown from the early 20th century?  They’ve got it.  Want a picture of the Empire State Plaza’s Egg in mid-construction?  They’ve got it.

One of the pictures sold at this store is a photo of several very excited girls, all with their tickets to go see the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night at the Strand Theater in downtown Albany.

Which of course got me to thinking.  When the Beatles’ theatrical releases were shown in the Capital District, at which theaters did they play?  And of those theaters, how many of them are still around today?

Capital District theaters in the 1960’s were single-screen movie palaces.  They were not attached to malls – heck, Colonie Center was just being built, and Crossgates Mall was still a place for Karner Blue Butterflies to populate.  You could go see a film at the Strand on North Pearl Street, or walk up a block and see a film at the Palace.  The Madison Theater was around in the 1960’s, as was the Spectrum – only back then, the Spectrum was called the Delaware.  One could see a film in Latham at the Branche, or travel up to Scotia and see “exclusive European films” at the Scotia Art Theater.  Open-air drive-in theaters operated year-round – the Turnpike Drive-In, for example, offered in-car heaters so that their patrons didn’t freeze to death while they were making out in the back seat during the triple-features.

A Hard Day’s Night was the first motion picture for the Beatles, and it premiered in the Capital District on August 18, 1964, one week after the film’s American debut.  A Hard Day’s Night played in front of packed houses at the Strand Theater on North Pearl Street.  The Strand, advertised as “New York State’s Most Beautiful Theater,” was at that time part of the Stanley Warner chain of movie palaces.

In December 1964, A Hard Day’s Night returned to the Strand Theater for one weekend, as part of a double-bill with another classic 1960’s film, Bikini Beach.  Yes, it’s the Fab Four with Frankie and Annette.  But hey, the place did boffo box office and the Beatles’ loyal fans packed the place once again.

That might explain why when the Beatles’ second film, Help! was released on August 25, 1965, the Strand was once again the place to be for fans of the merry mop-tops.  One week after the film’s American debut, the Strand hosted Help! on September 1, 1965.  Capital Region theatergoers had their choice that week of seeing either Help! at the Strand, or they could have watched The Sandpiper with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at the Branche in Latham.  The Delaware was in the final weeks of showing Marcello Mastroianni in Casanova ’70, while one could attend a drive-in double-feature of Mary Poppins and Having a Wild Week-End at the Hollywood Drive-In in Averill Park.  So Mary Poppins did have a wild weekend at one point.  I wonder if Bert the chimneysweep knew about that.

Anyways…

As was customary for theaters at the time that were showing films that might have a youth-oriented bent, the Strand twinned Help! with a Three Stooges comedy.  The Three Stooges would also play that weekend at the Madison, as their full-length film The Outlaws IS Coming was part of a Saturday matinee show.

If you’re looking for the Strand Theater today, its original physical address was 110 North Pearl Street.  I say “was.”  That address is now a parking lot adjacent to several downtown brew pubs.

The Beatles’ third motion picture, the animated Yellow Submarine, premiered nationally on November 13, 1968.  However, the film did not reach Albany motion picture screens for more than a month, and when it did, it did not play at the Strand – that theater was showing Steve McQueen in Bullitt that week.  Instead, Yellow Submarine premiered in the newly-opened Cinema 7 at the Plaza Seven Shopping Center in Latham.  The film, which premiered in Albany a few days before Christmas 1968, was introduced in its first showing by radio personalities from Top 40 radio station WPTR.

If you’re looking for Cinema 7 today, the building was taken over by the old Community Health Plan health insurance program.  The building was gutted and converted into office space.  The building itself still stands, but very little remains of its original glory as a film palace.

As for Let It Be – this is a tricky one.  Although the film premiered in New York on May 13, 1970, it hadn’t reached Albany screens in the three months after that premiere date.  I know, because I went through oodles of Times-Union and Knickerbocker News microfilms and the film never came up.  I’ll keep looking, but so far I’ve had no luck.

But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief trip through Albany’s movie house past.  Maybe I’ll go back to the archives again and see what happened to some of these long-forgotten movie theaters and the films they used to show.